Here's the biggest problem in discussing President Donald Trump's ongoing Russia scandal: Everyone has a bias, and there's no such thing as a neutral party.
For many Democrats, there is the bias of wanting to retroactively vindicate Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, despite her shocking loss in the November election. For Republicans, there's the desire to sanctify the outcome of that election, even if it was corrupted by third-party meddling.
For members of the hard left, there is the fear that proving Russian meddling in the 2016 election might empower foreign-policy hawks and strengthen both the machinery of the national security state and the centrist leadership of the Democratic Party. It also might discredit some leftist heroes, most notably WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. For the hard right, it's because Trump is their own hero — and many of them are fond of Russian President Vladimir Putin as well.
So many people are looking at this controversy from so many different perspectives that it has become difficult to pierce the fog and see the main story here: Based solely on what we already know about the Russia scandal, Donald Trump is an illegitimate president.
Let's set aside, for a moment, the fact that Trump has quite a few unsavory connections to the Russian political and financial elite. This president already had to fire his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, because Flynn lied about his contacts with Russian officials -- and Trump then waited 18 days before pulling that trigger. It has been established that Trump's eldest son eagerly sought to collude with the Russian government to gather dirt on Hillary Clinton, with the email exchange clearly establishing that Donald Jr. knew about Russia's desire to help his father win the election. And we know that the president himself dictated his son's misleading statement, which was likely not a criminal offense but is highly suspicious. Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after failing to disclose his own contacts with Russian officials — and that recusal has put Sessions on bad terms with the president.
Even if we didn't have all this background, we have Trump's own behavior. People forget that last summer, he encouraged Russia to hack into Clinton's emails on national television, stating, "They probably have her 33,000 emails, too. I hope they do. Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."
Both before and after he uttered those infamous words, Trump's obsequious attitude toward Russia wasn't just shocking from a moral standpoint, given Putin's abysmal record on human rights and freedom of expression. They were also highly inconsistent with the rest of Trump's foreign policy rhetoric. After all, Trump is no Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan, who can claim to be consistently isolationist in his foreign policy outlook. This is a president who, on every contemporary foreign policy matter not involving Russia or his pet cause of trade policy, is a by-the-numbers conservative Republican. Yet he seems to make an exception for just one country, over and over again, a fact that becomes ominous in light of the preexisting context.
Finally, there's the fact that Trump has repeatedly gone out of his way to prevent the public from learning about the full extent of his relationship with Russia. This is the most plausible explanation for Trump's refusal to release his tax returns, and by his own admission, it was the main reason he fired FBI Director James Comey. (Trump made that admission during the same conversation with visiting Russian officials in which he disclosed classified Israeli intelligence.) This also explains why the White House is so determined to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller, whom Trump has clearly considered firing, despite what might be immense political blowback.
It's important to take a break here and make clear that we shouldn't overstate the case. While it's obvious that Trump has an improper relationship with Russia, there is no evidence so far that the president himself directly colluded with Russian intelligence to undermine Clinton. As my colleague Amanda Marcotte recently pointed out, however, Donald Trump Jr.'s emails come close to a smoking gun indicating some level of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and the president's decision to dictate his son's inaccurate response can only heighten suspicion that Trump himself was directly involved. Then again, even if Trump did collude with Russia, there is little evidence to suggest that played a major role in the outcome of the election. Polling data strongly suggests that the letter about Clinton's emails released in late October by the now-martyred James Comey was more damaging than anything the Russians may have done.
Democrats may want to believe that pursuing the Russia investigation will erase the legitimacy of the 2016 election's outcome. It won't, and they need to let that go. The facts supporting such a conclusion simply aren't there.
Finally, not everything that has been cited as proof of Trump's involvement with Russia can be explained by collusion. It would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that the Democratic Party, which was revealed to be elitist if not downright corrupt in the emails published by WikiLeaks, has a strong interest in drawing attention to this scandal for reasons unrelated to the public welfare. Clinton's campaign was inexcusably out of touch with the economic concerns of Americans galvanized by the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Some members of the Democratic establishment are trying to obscure this reality by refocusing the 2016 election narrative on Russian meddling.
Similarly, members of the press must also be careful about serving as unwitting tools of institutions that want to take down Trump for their own reasons. When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that it was "really dumb" for Trump to insult the intelligence communities over the Russia investigation, he was correct — but not for reasons that any decent person should be happy about. Yes, the intelligence community has cause to suspect that Trump has been compromised by Russia, but is it really a good thing that unelected officials in secret agencies have the power to undermine or destroy individuals they dislike without accountability? While the far left's distrust of the security state may have led some to ignore inconvenient facts about Trump's relationship with Russia, that doesn't excuse mainstream liberals from implicitly championing a "deep state" apparatus that they rightly maligned during the presidency of George W. Bush.
If that seems like an awfully long list of qualifications, that's because the Trump-Russia scandal has exposed some complex truths about American political life. There are few true-blue good guys in the game of politics (see "House of Cards" lest you have any doubts), and even the people who operate with the best of intentions are often too blinded by their own agendas to acknowledge facts that run athwart of them.
Yet based on what we know — not what we suspect, or what we want to believe, but what we know for sure — Trump's relationship with Russia has delegitimized him, if the term "legitimacy" is to have any meaning. A president should not be able to conceal potentially compromising relationships with a hostile foreign nation without being considered illegitimate. A president or a candidate should not encourage that country to meddle in our political process on his behalf without being considered illegitimate. He should not be able to fire, threaten or intimidate government officials who are doing their job in enforcing the law in order to cover up his interactions with that country without seeming illegitimate.
Insofar as Trump most probably would have won the election without Russian interference, he was legitimately elected president (setting aside the question of whether a nationwide popular vote should replace the Electoral College). He is an illegitimate president because his behavior, both during the campaign and in the White House, reveals that he doesn't respect democratic institutions and has subordinated his own country's interests to those of a hostile foreign power. If Trump is allowed to get away with all his Russia-related chicanery and still be considered a legitimate president, Americans of all political persuasions will have lost something far more precious than any single election.